Dec 25, 2015

Christmas, 2015

Today we recall with unfeigned joy the moment of Christ’s birth. Christmas. The Mass of Christ. There are three perspectives on Christmas.

The first perspective is the one long taken by the world but in our day slowly subsiding: a certain joy, an increase in human generosity, songs of snowfalls and the ringing of bells, decorations and presents and most things merry. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.” I hope the G.K. was right, but I have a growing uncertainty that he was. It is no longer to be presumed that people will continue on with Christmas celebrations. Today, there are, with increasing regularity, those who are offended by the mere mention of Christmas. No nativity scenes for such as these. Still, there is an humanness to the celebration of Christmas and the spirit it brings, even in its secular version. I hope that spirit does not die out. It is the beginning of wonder and joy. If it is followed, allowed to enter into the heart, it almost touches the mystery.

The second is Christmas for those who believe. It stretches from vague notions of a great wonder come in the form of a baby, to explicit professions of the God-man who will save us from our sins. The image borne in the hearts of most believers is piously idyllic. We can see it in our nativity scenes and Christmas cards, hear it in the carols: O holy night and Angels we have heard on high. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Faith and love have led us to contemplate the splendor of the light coming into the world: we envision the mystery of the Nativity with eyes focused by love. But there is more to Christmas than this. There is something deeper and more profound. As G.K. Chesterton also said, “The fun of Christmas is founded upon the seriousness of Christmas.”

And that leads us to our third: for nine months God has been hidden in the womb of Mary. The glory cloud which Ezekiel the prophet saw depart from the temple has been present in the world, but hidden from it. And now, at last, love has revealed himself. But who would have known without being told? A child is born in a cave in Bethlehem, a name which means “House of Bread.” Our Lord did not come in thunder and excitement. Yes, there were signs for those who had faith but the explicit presence of God was found only implicitly, invisible love lay hidden in the visible form of that baby. And the picture is anything but idyllic. At the time of his birth, the world just continued on as it had been doing: working, sleeping, building, planning, fighting, and even sinning. This was the welcome he received. “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.”

The heavens were filled with amazement and joy, and certainly he was received with tenderness into the arms of his mother. But there was also the loneliness of it all. The quietness of the arrival, the sorrow that Love feels when it is ignored by those for who it longs. There is the unpleasantness of the accommodations. The King of kings put up for the night with the animals, laid to rest in the manger – a feeding trough. Divinity is revealed and made present in a child, and yet hidden in the messiness and imperfection of human existence. Already, even on a joyful day such as this, the glorious and fearful purpose of this life is made felt. The Cross lies hidden in the midst of Christmas.

The world is still going on without paying attention to the love poured out for it in the life of this child. Love came and died and rose for the sake of its beloved, and world seems not to care. “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by man’s decision but of God.” He makes his presence known to those who will receive him. Here at this altar we will lift him up on high, for adoration, revealed in truth, hidden in mystery, under the form of bread.

This Christmas is just like that Christmas. Love is willing to come down in the midst of our weariness, our loneliness, our sorrows, our preoccupations and, yes, our imperfections. He longs to find a place in every heart that will receive him, and he does not care if the accommodations are perfectly suited for his majesty and splendor. And the knowledge of, the encounter with, such a serious love as His, gives warmth, joy, mirth and merriment to hearts such as ours. So rejoice in carols and presents, trees and decorations; Gaze upon the loveliness of the Nativity with the eyes of faith; and peer in wonder before the hiddenness of the mystery of God-with-us.

Dec 13, 2015

Third Sunday of Advent, 2015

“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart!” “Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!” “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”

The ancient name for this Sunday is “Gaudete Sunday”, literally “Rejoice! Sunday.” It is taken from the first word of the entrance chant for the Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” Our readings remind us over and over again of the command to be joyful. It seems appropriate, then, to reflect upon Christian joy.

Joy, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is caused by love. Love delights or takes pleasure in the goodness of its object. The movement or attraction towards the good is called desire, while resting in or possession of the good is joy or pleasure. Joy exceeds happiness. The biblical command to rejoice is not reducible to a command to be cheerful all the time. First, it is impossible that we should always be cheerful, but it is possible, even in difficult times, to rejoice on account of God’s love for us and, even more so, on account of God’s own goodness and beauty. However, in worship there is always the danger of mistaking frivolity, a lack of seriousness, and flippancy, a lack of respect, for rejoicing. This kind of fake cheerfulness is an indifference to the solemnity of the moment and an offense to realities of sorrow, pain, and suffering in our neighbor. This superficial nod to joy, however well intentioned, is related to irreverence.

Our modern society has mistakenly, and perhaps unwittingly, put the notions of joy and solemnity in opposition to one another. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that solemnity in our worship is ordered to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients of the sacraments. Our opening prayer asked God to grant to us to always celebrate the joys of so great a salvation with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Liturgical solemnity and glad rejoicing are not opposites. A solemn attitude, spiritually speaking, is formal and dignified and characterized by a deep sincerity. It is not the same as being somber or mirthless. When our solemnity becomes grim, dour, or humorless, we have lost the sense of what Christian solemnity is. It is perhaps true that as modern Christians we have lost touch with the true meaning of both solemnity and joy, and how they should be expressed in worship.

C.S. Lewis wrote that “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.” Which one of us would not be offended by a frivolous and flippant rendition of our National Anthem? Who among us would not be saddened to witness informality or irreverence in the burial ceremonies of military honors? There is a pleasure, a joy, which is only experienced when solemn ceremonies are carried out with dignity and seriousness. And what could be more worthy of joyful solemnity and majestic ritual than the making present of the Eternal Victim upon our altars, as we offer Him to our Heavenly Father for our benefit and the benefit of the whole world?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly - it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation. ...

This action of God, which takes place through human speech, is the real "action" for which all creation is in expectation. The elements of the earth are transubstantiated, pulled, so to speak, from their creaturely anchorage, grasped at the deepest ground of their being, and changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The New Heaven and the New Earth are anticipated. The real "action" in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential.

The Cross is the approbation of our existence, not in words, but in an act so completely radical that it caused God to become flesh and pierced this flesh to the quick; that, to God, it was worth the death of his incarnate Son. One who is so loved that the other identifies his life with this love and no longer desires to live if he is deprived of it; one who is loved even unto death – such a one knows that he is truly loved. But if God so loves us, then we are loved in truth. Then love is truth, and truth is love. Then life is worth living. This is the evangelium. [The Gospel]. This is why, even as the message of the Cross, it is glad tidings for one who believes; the only glad tidings that destroy the ambiguity of all other joys and make them worthy to be joy.  Christianity is, by its very nature, joy – the ability to be joyful.”

Being solemn does not absolve us from having joy, and the two are actually related to one another. That has consequences: not only for how we comport ourselves in the house of God or how we carry out the liturgical service, but it also should carry over into our relationships with one another. How will anyone see our joy if our greeting of one another is not characterized by the pleasure of being together for this solemn moment? And what if we do not greet one another at all? We are a family, and there is a pleasure in being together in celebration on the Lord’s day. Our solemnity is the work of many more people than you think, most of which you do not see. There is the training of our altar servers, the arranging of flowers, choir practice, the care of the altar linens, the setting up for Holy Mass, and many more such things. These are done out of love for God and for you. Yet, we all share responsibility for the logistics of our worship. Everyone loves to greet the priest after Holy Mass and shake his hand. Do you greet one another? Look around in the pews next to you. Are we truly a family, do we truly love one another, if we are just individuals sitting in our normal spaces – strangers to one another? We will not have joy in one another, if we do not have love for one another. And how can we love one another if we do not know each other? If we come and talk to no one, greet no one, just simply receive the sacrament, fulfill our obligation of Sunday worship and leave, have we not also fallen into the trap of a form of religious entertainment? Solemnity requires that we each do our part logistically and interiorly to enter into the sacred space of liturgy with devotion and reverence. Christian joy requires that we remember to rest in one another as Christian brothers and sisters rejoicing for, indeed, the Lord is near.